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Sunday, July 16, 2017

On Grammar and The Abolition of Man

What is education doing
to our children?
I just finished reading C.S. Lewis' The Abolition of Man, and, it illustrates what I was saying in my last post -- words matter. Not only that, but the way words are put together, i.e., grammar, matters as well. The saying, "The pen is mightier than the sword." cuts two ways. The pen can be used to spread the truth and goodness as Dante does in The Divine Comedy or the pen can be used to spread the lie and evil like the works of Marx and Hitler.

Lewis' book is about education and how relativism leads to the "abolition of man" making him little more than a social experiment of his "conditioners." It begins with a discussion of an unnamed work Lewis calls the Green Book which is a "little book on English intended for 'boys and girls in the upper forms of schools.'" Lewis doesn't name the book or the authors because, "I do not want to pillory two modest practising (sic) school-masters who were doing the best they knew." At the same time he decries the evils he sees in the "actual tendency of their work."

He particularly emphasizes a "momentous" paragraph where the authors attribute statements of judgment to personal feelings when they write, "This confusion is continually present in language as we use it. We appear to be saying something very important about something: and actually we are only saying something about our own feelings."
Here's where grammar comes in. 

Lewis responds to the authors, whom he calls Gaius and Titius, saying, if their view:
were consistently applied it would lead to obvious absurdities. It would force them to maintain that You are contemptible means I have contemptible feelings: in fact that Your feelings are contemptible means My feelings are contemptible. The schoolboy who reads this passage will believe two propositions: firstly, that all sentences containing a predicate of value are statements about the emotional state of the speaker, and, secondly, that all such statements are unimportant. It is true that Gaius and Titius have said neither of these things in so many words. They have treated only one particular predicate of a word descriptive of the speaker's emotions. The pupils are left to do for themselves the work of extending the same treatment to all predicates of value: and no slightest obstacle to such extension is placed in their way.
If you remember your grammar, a predicate nominative is an adjective referring back to the subject. Now it's true that some predicate nominatives are about the feelings of the person making the statement. If I say Pizza is delicious, I am, in fact describing my feelings and opinion about pizza. Others may disagree. However, if I say, Rabid dogs are vicious I am NOT saying I have vicious feelings about rabid dogs. I am stating a fact about the behavior of dogs who have rabies. But the Green Book authors fail to make this distinction and, in fact, as Lewis points out they use the adverb only in a way that trivializes and personalizes all statements of value:
The very power of Gaius and Titius depends on the fact that they are dealing with a boy: a boy who thinks he is 'doing' his 'English prep' and has no notion that ethics, theology, and politics are all at stake. It is not a theory they put into his mind, but an assumption, which ten years hence, its origin forgotten and its presence unconscious, will condition him to take one side in a controversy which he has never recognized as a controversy at all. 
Lewis was pointing out the danger of the focus on feelings evidenced in the Green Book and how it could distort the values and perceptions of students. It is the same tendency that infects modernism, relativism, and secular humanism, the tendency of people today who deny any objective truth and proclaim instead, You have your truth, and I have my truth. That statement, while true on the pizza level, is completely untrue when discussing serious issues of morality. Moral truths, based on the natural law instilled in man's heart, are true for all whether they accept them or not.

Words matter; grammar matters. Define your terms. Ask questions (the Socratic method). Argue respectfully. Truth is appealing to truth seekers. Engage with them. If you find yourself arguing with those who reject the truth, stop. Pray for them, but, as the Bible says, don't cast your pearls before swine. Those who have cast off their humanity and God's truth will tear you to pieces if they can. Pray for them.


  1. The Conditioners are in ascendance judging from the lunacy loose in the world today. Moral relativism, cultural relativism, and religious relativism are all deeply infecting our society and especially our youth. This not only tends to destroy morality, society, and religion, but it tends to lead inexorably to the dissolution of society altogether. We need, above all, a restoration of clarity, something C.S. Lewis was quite good at.

  2. (Though the Looking Glass) Humpty Dumpty boasted: " 'When I use a word, means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less.' 'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.' 'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, ' which is to be master---that's all.' "

  3. C.S. Lewis is still one of the most read authors today. When a Liberal (Allan Bloom) wrote The Closing of The American Mind half a century ago, he was merely confirming what Lewis had advanced in his prophetic book. The US has become a house divided because too many of its citizens believe that God and religion must be rejected in order to "be an intellectual". We have become a country of "educated" people with a myriad of diplomas but no one seems to be able to solve the simplest thing. The MBA programs sent a legion of leftists and know-nothing men and women into the bloodstream of our great companies. I worked with many of them in company after company, I have seen them destroy capital with asinine enthusiasm and they are still being paid very well to continue doing that. In short abandon Christ, walk in darkness, walk to you own destruction. THE FIRST ORDER OF THE DAY should be to return to Christ. NOTHING will work until we turn around and start seeking Him again. "I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For APART FROM ME you can do nothing." John 15:5

  4. Sally, you have hit on one of my favorite quotes. Sadly, Humpty Dumpty is legion!

    CCR, you are absolutely right and I see from your profile that you are a Chesterton fan as well. Me too, although my favorite work is The Flying Inn. I'm still trying to figure out what The Man Who Was Thursday is all about. LOL! Maybe you can explain it to me.

  5. The man who was Thursday is "a nightmare" as Chesterton described it. A sad imagination in which God and the devil are the same person. Back in the early 20th century, Chesterton was already seeing clearly into the future. The duel between the two professors DeWorms is a very good description of the travails of today's academic schizophrenia. Read it as a nightmare and you will see.

    Many say that we are living in Post-Modernism -- I think they are wrong. We are living the apotheosis of Modernism -- I believe that Chesterton was trying to figure out the evolution of the Liberal ideas of his time.

  6. Thank you, I'll try reading it again from that perspective. I'm reading Walker Percy right now and thinking he has a lot in common with Chesterton although I can't find any connection between them. He talks about the influence on himself of Aquinas, C.S. Lewis, and Kierkegaard, but I can't find any mention of Chesterton.

  7. Walker Percy used to live in Charlottesville when it was not Liberalville. I have the "The Second Coming" in my bookshelves, I should re-read it soon. Thank you for the reminder!

  8. I just ordered three of his novels and a book written by his Uncle Will who raised him and his brother after their parents died. After I work through those I'll look for that one. Right now I'm working my way through his essays in Signposts in a Strange Land.

  9. I don't know why my last comment was signed as "Anonymous" .. oh, well!
    Thank you for the lead on Walker Percy's uncle. Please share the title of that book, if possible. God bless!

  10. Hmmm...don't know. I can't remember the title off hand, but I ordered it so when it arrives I'll post it.

    I took a quick look to see if I could find it on the internet. It's Lanterns on the Levee by William Alexander Percy who was Walker's Dad's first cousin. It's his autobiography and I read and article that suggested it was important to read it to understand Walker Percy.

    His grandfather and father both committed suicide and his mother died only two years, I think, after his dad's death. His uncle was a lawyer, a bachelor, but took on the responsibility of 16 year old Walker and his younger brother. What a challenge! I'm eager to get the book.

  11. Actually, to be completely accurate, Uncle Will was Walker's first cousin once removed.